June 25, 2011
Leafs look to Liles to replace Kaberle
By ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency
MINNEAPOLIS -- For all of the platitudes heaped on Tomas Kaberle for being that coveted and elusive "puck-moving defenceman" that every team must have, the Maple Leafs still managed to have a dreadful power-play while he was in blue and white.
Before the 2011 NHL entry draft got humming here Friday night, Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke managed to get what he hopes will be an upgrade on the player he helped get a Stanley Cup ring with the Boston Bruins.
In acquiring defenceman John-Michael Liles from the Colorado Avalanche for the relatively bargain-basement price of a 2012 second-round pick, the Leafs can at least hope there will finally be some "special" back in their special teams.
"Liles is basically going to take the place of Tomas Kaberle," Leafs vice-president of hockey operations, Dave Nonis, said moments after the team announced the deal.
"He's a power-play guy, a position we've definitely been lacking since Kaberle was gone. He's going to step right in and will be given a lot of responsibility and opportunity."
To say the power-play has been lacking is certainly an understatement. Lousy would be a more apt description.
Two seasons ago, the Leafs power-play was last in the league at 30th after hitting at a woeful 14%. Moving up two points to 16% this past season got them up to 22nd in the league, but there is little dispute the unit remained a liability for a team that was offensively challenged on too many nights.
But already this off-season the Leafs are taking measures to improve the operation. Not that they should be made the lone scapegoats, but the dismissal of assistant coaches Tim Hunter and Keith Acton might have been seen as the first step.
The acquisition of Liles is clearly the next.
With one-year remaining on what was a four-year deal, Liles becomes a Leaf at a relatively affordable price of $4.2 million US. He had to waive a no-trade clause to make the deal happen but likes the opportunity to work for a team he feels has an upside.
"After Burkie took over a couple of years ago and watching their transformation, I'm very excited to be going there," Liles said on a conference call with Toronto media. "Obviously, it's a new chapter in my life, but I think how the Leafs are set up, I hope I will be a nice fit.
"As far as a change of scenery is concerned, I've been in Colorado for a long time (seven seasons) and l loved my time there but it's just one of those things."
The Leafs have had their eye on Liles for a while now, first attempting to acquire him around the trade deadline.
At age 30, the former Michigan State star classifies as a veteran but his best years may yet be ahead of him. In 76 games with the Avalanche last season, he had six goals and a career-high 40 assists while averaging 22 minutes a night.
While ice time will be Ron Wilson's domain, Nonis expects Liles will log a heavy load with his new team, likely hitting the 20-minute mark or beyond.
The Leafs feel they have a future in the type of style Kaberle provided and Liles will now immediately claim. Young prospects Jake Gardiner and Jesse Blacker would appear to have a future in that job description, but there's a need for more immediate help.
"We weren't prepared to go into the season with a rookie in that role," Nonis said.
"We needed to find someone who could provide that offence. We need our power play to get better and a lot of that starts on the back end."